Eight years have passed since his unexpected, “surreal” victory in the Alpine super-combined in Turin, Italy, and skier Ted Ligety has yet to feel comfortable with being called an Olympic gold medalist.
“I’m always taken aback by it, still,” he said.
Back then, Ligety was a confident but relatively unknown 21-year-old with the freedom to race as if he had nothing to lose.
Now, however, Ligety is a marked man. Last season was the best of his career and he is shouldering the aspirations of the U.S. Olympic ski team, which is looking to him for at least one gold medal in Sochi. With an array of major endorsements, Ligety has become a familiar face in the weeks leading into the 2014 Winter Games.
The attention and lofty expectations — and the need to atone for a disappointing 2010 performance in Vancouver — make the 2006 experience seem quaint. But Ligety, 29, says he’s a much better skier, technically and psychologically, and is up to the challenge.
“I think I’ve definitely matured a lot as an athlete since my first Olympics,” he said. “I think I have figured out how to become more consistent on the World Cup, figured out how to get my best performances, especially on those important days.”
A native of Park City, Utah, Ligety is a notoriously late bloomer who attributes much of his success to hard work.
As a kid racer, he was never the fastest, and getting beat all the time motivated him to train more intensely, and to become a student of the technical aspects of the sport.
He spent years honing his distinctive method of attacking a course, carving edge-to-edge turns through an entire race and virtually eliminating the sliding maneuver that most skiers often resort to. The result is the appearance that he is skating.
“He’s figured out a way to ski…in a manner that was really different from any of his peers, and I’d say a lot of that is his astuteness,” said Forest Carey, one of Ligety’s U.S. Ski Team coaches. “He’s pretty analytical. He has a science-y mind.”
That approach propelled Ligety to his dark-horse gold-medal performance in Turin. But it really made a difference after the International Ski Federation in 2011 changed the rules for his signature event, the giant slalom, mandating a return to longer, straighter skis.
The move was attributed to a rise in injuries blamed on the rise of parabolic-shaped skis that made turning easier.
Ligety was one of the most outspoken critics of the ruling, but it ended up doing him a favor. His “catapult” technique suited the use of the old-style skis.
He started the 2012-13 World Cup season by winning the giant slalom in Soelden, Australia by 2.75 seconds, the largest winning margin in three decades. He went on to eight more first-place finishes, including gold medals in the giant slalom, super-combined and super-G at the world championships in Schladming, Austria. He was the first man in 45 years to win three events at a world championship.
It was another example of Ligety exceeding everyone’s expectations. But he is quick to remind that the Schladming performance was virtually impossible to repeat, especially at the Olympics.
He’s not taking anything for granted, though. He’ll be racing five events — the giant slalom, slalom, super-combined, super-G and downhill — all winter in preparation for what could be his defining Olympic moment. He could be a medal contender in all but the downhill, his weakest event.
“I feel like right now I’m at the peak of my career, so I’m really looking forward to the opportunity,” he said.